Authorial Note: Pt. 1 can be found here,  Pt. 2 here,  Pt. 3 here, and Pt. 4 here

     Deep theological and political reflection will be the norm for most of our generation in the upcoming decades as the socio-economic and political apocalypse of the demise of neoliberalism unfolds, and, particularly for committed Christians young adults for whom 9/11 was the central event of their lives, the questions of praxis that result from this realization and embrace of the coming apocalypse are profound and detailed. What began as a vague question about the connections between the economic and political crisis in Greece and the questions raises by St. Paul the Apostle in his letters to the church in Thessalonica 300px-PaulThas become an exercise in something that Fyodor Dostoevsky undertook while envisioning the apocalypse coming upon 19th and 20th century Russia. Simply, this series has been an exercise in providing ‘spiritual’ answers to ‘political’ problems, or better yet, re-envisioning the faith of the New Testament not as a private religious belief, but as a socio-economic and political alternative to the ideologies that are bringing about a apocalypse in the world order. What we are not engaging in here is an exercise in Christian apologetics- defending a faith that is increasingly been abandoned or trying to revert to something- rather we are asking another question- what would it mean to be a Christian now? What would it mean to conceive of the vision of the Kingdom of God as an alternative society, in light of our current apocalypse? What is amazingly hopeful for writers, preachers, or really any believer right now should be is that the socio-economic questions and political questions that are being raised in our climate are eschatological questions. The questions are no longer about reacting to problems, or reforming broken systems, or legislating new laws, but precisely now that everything is about to end we can work toward something else, so what kind of society do we want?

     Listing the symptoms and the corresponding fears of the neoliberal socio-economic crisis and political apocalypse as we have perceived them from listening to the alternative visions being proposed, we would list them as follows:

  1. Internationalism and the loss of sovereignty  (Loss of Identity and Control)
  2. Mass illegal immigration (Invasion of an uncontrollable external force)
  3. The shaming of national pride by international law (Shame and humiliation)
  4. The destruction of the family (The break-up of social cohesion)
  5. Secularization of spiritual realities like nature and ethnicity (The disenchantment of life)
  6. Free trade (Privileged Secretive Conspiracies)
  7. Deregulation of financial markets (Fraud and deceit)
  8. Fiscal austerity (Loss of Material Security)
  9. Privatization (Theft)
  10. Public governments divested of any ability to assert control, even for the public good, even democratically over financial institutions (Overt Violent Domination)

Any alternative positive vision for society must address these fears and offer at least partial responses and alternative social practices to accompany them. But more then this, as we have seen, any alternative positive vision for society must offer a different anthropology then the antagonistic permanent binaries offered by either (1) self interested particular secular individualism (me versus everyone that stands in the way of my desires/ neoliberalism), (2) us-interested general egalitarian secular collectivism (humanity versus anyone we deem inhuman/ the radical ‘left’), or (3) us-interested particular ethnic glorified collectivism (us versus them/ the fascist ‘right’). What is suggested here is an extended thesis from a quote attributed to Thomas Merton that

“We are not at peace with others [socio-economics and politics] because we are not at peace with ourselves [anthropology], and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God [theology]”

     What however makes St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians a suitable candidate for a spiritual resource to draw upon to offer an alternative positive vision for society?* The community Paul is addressing in his letter is a professional voluntary association in the ancient world- a rough contemporary equivalent are worker’s unions. The professional voluntary association is made of up of mostly non-Judean manual working men, perhaps in the leather trade of which Paul was a part of and of whom Paul is endeavouring to identify himself with in his appeal to this community- he too is part of the ‘working class’ if you will.  Voluntary associations are usually either religious groups or associations of a shared  trade, but more often than not these two functions went together- they were both a workers union and a religious group. Voluntary associations such as the Thessaloniki community often had rotating leadership cycles, and home grown leadership from those among their rank and trade, rather than imposed from the outside. Finally such groups often encompassed a general ethos of competition, orderliness, and contribution for funds relating to funerals, banquets, weddings, and such. If there was one ‘church’ from whom we could discern what a socio-economic and political alternative vision would look life, a ‘church’ whose central concerns were about what proper leadership and organization was and the distribution of resources, and was also asking these enormous important questions of praxis in the light of their current world order coming to an end (1 Thess. 5:1-3 in particular)- it was Paul’s voluntary association at Thessalonica.

     Let us begin then to read 1 & 2 Thessalonians** with this focus in mind and work our imaginations into seeing if and how the socio-economic and political alternative may be birthed from drawing upon this spiritual resource. What is the alternative anthropology is outlined in Paul’s letters? It is not based self interested particular secular individualism (me versus everyone that stands in the way of my desires) because it is acknowledged that human beings are communal creatures, defined by who they are related to, not what they are as isolated subjects. Paul introduced himself by mentioning his companions, he grounds his community based in their geography, he bases their movement in their resurrected leader, and that all of their action is formed by imitation of one another. The Thessalonian community is not defined in anyway abstractly as ‘sentient beings with rights’ or what not, but precisely by their relationship to everything else. Nor is the anthropology here a us-interested general egalitarian secular collectivism (humanity versus anyone we deem inhuman), because, as we will see, this community is defined separately from other groups of people not because they are human and their opposition are monsters or demons, but based precisely on their reception to the new movement of this particular community. Finally, it is not us-interested particular ethnic glorified collectivism (us versus them) because their identity is not rooted in their ethnicity, and they actually have international and ethnically diverse solidarity in Judea and elsewhere (2:14).

dilbert_misinterpretation

Apologies for the obscure terminology here

  The anthropology that Paul offers is none of these options but precisely a other-interested particular egalitarian glorified collectivism. The Thessalonian’s anthropology is rooted in its sole interest being for those outside its domain, it is particularity in its relationships, its glorification in being identified with the model divine human Jesus Christ, and its collectivist orientation is witnessed in its communal social structure and practice. Primarily then, having an other-orientation does not require you to erase your own identity, as in the radical ‘left’s’ vision- its not important to remember just how ‘human’ you are and have that shared humanity as your connection with others or boundary mark by which you exclude others. You and your community are particular subjects, not subsumed or erased by a general collective- you are allowed to be defined differently from others. Furthermore, being other-oriented and particular leads to egalitarianism because the “other/neighbour” that your are orientated to is an “other” precisely because they are unlike you, and thus your community must be ready to be unlike yourselves for you to even be included in who you are! Or as Paul says in another letter, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23)- Paul cannot himself share in this community unless his own identity is radically egalitarian. It is this anthropology alone then that can address the first fear of our list of ten, of a loss of identity and control, a resultant of internationalism and loss of sovereignty. It offers an internationalist solidarity dependant upon no other particular secular authority that can take away your inclusion in the community- you have your particular identity, and your sovereignty cannot be revoked, while at the same time being internationalist in a shared transcendent authority of a common struggle. As Slavoj Žižek writes in Against the Double Blackmail in his rejection of liberal multi-culturalism, “Don’t just respect others: offer them a common struggle, since our problems today are common; propose and fight for a positive universal project shared by all participants” (100). The Thessalonians do not have to be uniform in anyway to the Judean Christians, nor do they have to be instructed and controlled by them, but they share international solidarity in their shared struggle (1 Thess. 2:13-16).

     The other-orientated particular egalitarian community then is glorified and not secular, because only if it is glorified can it even be other-orientated.  The other anthropologies offered by neoliberalism, the radical ‘left’, and the fascist-esque ‘right’, are all secular anthropologies precisely because in their definition of humanity, humanity is all on its own to protect or glorify itself- no grace or guidance in this universe, we must look out for ourselves or for our group. Only if then, like the Thessalonian community, you believe that grace is available and needed, that peace is on offer to you, can you begin to give up self-interest or your own community’s interests for others. The grace of God is the theology that can give birth to this other-oriented anthropology, nothing else. If peace with God leads to peace with ourselves, theology giving birth to anthropology, then what do these together birth in terms of a socio-economic and political organization of our relationships to each other and the planet. Or, what makes it collectivist? If the radical ‘left’ and the fascist ‘right’ offered proposals, what may we say some of the ethical proposals here are? Furthermore, how does the orientation of this community in Paul’s letter guide us as to how we should address the other nine fears associated with these large socio-economic and political forces at work?

     One of the central purposes of Paul’s first letter is to outline his own behaviour as a exemplary model, which he characterizes as sincere, gentle, and sacrificial. The first of many proposals then we might say from these letters is to actually sacrifice one’s own rights- the intentional relinquishment of judicial/human/earned rights. Paul says that he acted in this way ‘though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.’ (1 Thess. 2:7). Paul is speaking of relationships between individuals within a group, but what might this look like as a wider socio-political practice? Let us discuss honestly the issue of illegal immigration as the resultant socio-economic and political upheaval of the second of our ten fears- that of an uncontrollable external force that drains resource. Two ‘rights’ constantly referred to in the debate throughout much of Europe and North America about the current refugee crisis- a resultant, we might add of the demise of neoliberalism- are the human rights of the refugees to live free from persecution, and the rights of a nation to a secure boarder and to privilege its own citizens in its distribution of resources. When Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany responded to a Palestinian girl begging for asylum, she answered quite honestly, “… if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.” Let’s be frank, if everyone in Germany wanted to live with the same standards they have always had, there would not be enough. What if however we were to sacrifice our rights? Paul’s first proposal to us, of sacrificing our own rights for the sake of another, might lead a community founded upon this socio-economic and political alternative to embrace open boarders- sacrificing their right as a community to be protected from an outsider, and furthermore, the refugees would be encouraged to sacrifice all their rights of accommodation, recognizing that they too are to live self-sacrifically.

     Continuing from our first two conclusions thus far of (i) embracing internationalism on a transcendent common struggle and not uniformity of identity and (ii) embracing open boarders in a self-sacrifical ethic; another proposal we may glean from Paul’s letters is self-control when it comes to addressing our third phenomenon and its accompanying fear. We have international law in order to publicly shame nations that do not conform to some other international authority’s idea of the common good- we do not trust that they will hold themselves accountable to a moral standard, that self-control is an unreasonable expectation because neoliberalism has endowed us with the vision of pursuing desires without restraint as a good. 31ee61a06b428d2ce3b930b083576f36Paul speaks of self-control in sexual matters, making a passing pun to a male’s genitalia as a tool, not because sex is dirty or that the ‘flesh’ is evil, but precisely, ‘that no one wrong or exploit a brother in this matter’ (1 Thess. 4:6). Far from traditional religious prudishness, Paul and this community understand, alongside of Frank Underwood in HBO’s show House of Cardsthat “…everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” We may say then that what Paul makes insight into here is that relationships of exploitation begin in matters pertaining to sexuality, where human beings are most naturally inclined to exploit each other for desire. We should not be surprised then that when its comes to shaming and humiliation of nations by bankers that there will be a sexual eroticized element to it for these bankers, a sado-maschism prevalent in all behaviour. What self-control as a socio-political practice may look like then is a communal asceticism such as celibate sexualities, non-consumption of pornography, the criminalization of procurers, and zero tolerance for sexual assault and rape- beginning with sexuality moving onto other areas of exploitation. Self-control can no longer be viewed as an unreasonable expectation as in neoliberalism, and thus external legal standards on which to humiliate and debase people can also no longer stand. Self-control is to embrace a restraint on desires because they are exploitative, and as a result of this internalization we can recognize that the desire to shame and humiliate others by external legal standards is in itself a sado-maschistic expression of desire.

     Thus three traces of alternative socio-economic and political practices to be enacted that we can discern are

  1. Internationalism and the loss of sovereignty  (Loss of Identity and Control)
    • Embracing internationalism on a transcendent common struggle and not uniformity of identity. Identity and struggle remain particular but internationalism is embraced on the commonality of struggle.
  2. Mass illegal immigration (Invasion of an uncontrollable external force)
    • Embracing open boarders in a self-sacrifical ethic. External forces and peoples use of resources are no longer things we must be afraid of for our own protection but rather opportunities for us to practice self-sacrifice in our other-interested orientation.
  3. The shaming of national pride by international law (Shame and humiliation)
    • Embracing self-control and communal asceticism, especially rooted and beginning with human interactions of sexuality. An internalized conscience addresses the fear of being ashamed and humiliated because you already examine yourself critically, and, furthermore, only diminishes the need for an external force law that people use against one another as an expression of a sado-maschist desire itself.

Traces, that is what we have so far. How might these letters be further read to address these other seven socio-economic and political issues and fears?

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*Most of the following is drawn from:  Ascough, Richard S. “The Thessalonian Christian Community as a Professional Voluntary Association.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 2 (July 1, 2000): 311–28. doi:10.2307/3268489.

** Readers are encouraged to read both letters, for instance here, before continuing if there is no imitate knowledge of the content of these letters already.

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